Here be Spoilers. You have been warned.
The second Avengers film came out today and its something of a mixed bag, full of good and bad. It's also very much part of a larger picture that Marvel is building and that really shows, to the extent that without the films that have gone before it, the film loses something. The films are very much in 'building' mode, working towards the Infinity War films in the next few years, something that will throw anyone who has not been following Marvel pretty religiously and while it is nice to see the context of the Infinity Stones, for a casual fan it may be just that step beyond. Similarly the 'in the credits' sequence comes out of left field and will mean next to nothing to anyone who did not see Guardians of the Galaxy last year.
Returning to Age of Ultron, overall, the film is well choreographed, shot and written. The fight scenes are well put together and the Hulk/Iron Man combat is beautifully realised. Whedon pulls no punches in showing how much devastation the fight causes. Likewise Ultron is presented as a terrifying threat, the product of technology who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. In many ways he's a villain who's grown more terrifying as science has progressed, no longer a simple robot with an agenda to wipe out organic life; now he reflects the connectivity of the world, underlining how difficult it is to be alone, to be a singular entity. The film makes good use of this, housing him not only in the skull faced robotic forms but also detailing his activities on the internet as he tries to steal nuclear codes and locate the super metal Vibranium. This coincided with a nice piece of world building, setting up a link to the Black Panther film in 2018. Unfortunately Ultron also feels a little as if he's taken his playbook from the first film, and the beats of his plan seem to be very much the same as Loki's.
In fact a lot of the film's beats are familiar, something Marvel films have suffered from before: it is the acting and script, complete with Whedon's requisite puns and snark that bring it together and keep it moving. There are some nice carry overs from the first film too, the joke about people playing computer games at work gets a new lease of life as does Tony's oh so humble statement about what he provides the team.
It is to the film's credit that it juggles so many characters and plot element, guiding them to what feels like a natural and kind cradle in Avengers and allowing each of them to have moments to shine. In all fairness I should mention that its very much focused on the characters who don't get their own films; Black Widow, Hulk and Hawkeye are at the heart of the film and in many ways define it, capturing the man versus monster theme and grounding the movie into a human space that stops it just being superheroes fighting big robots. The possibility of romance between Widow and Hulk, and the sheer ordinariness of Clint Barton's home life are great touches, reminding us of the other side of the superhero genre, the people inside the costumes. These characters are also the most fully realised and well rounded, whilst some of the others don't feel quite so natural. In particular the heel turn on Tony Stark, recasting him from a millionaire playboy philanthropist to someone who runs around creating AIs to try and defend the Earth feels forced. I can see the roots of his motives but somehow the film didn't sell me his plan nearly as easily as I could buy Steve Rogers' opposition. Like many of Marvel's comics events it felt as if Stark had been tweaked a little to make him fit the plot, rather than being true to the character. One thing I did like, across the board, was the fact that the characters were shown saving people during the final battle and that civilian safety came so high on the agenda.
The addition of the Maximoff twins feels as if it was a missed opportunity and that the characters were simply pawns in the ongoing brouhaha between Marvel and Fox. Arguably they brought nothing that were particular to their own characters to the film and were simply there to move the plot along. Scarlet Witch could have been replaced by Moondragon, Mantis or any other Marvel mystic/psychic characters: cruelly it feels as if she was included to satisfy Whedon's yen for teen girl protagonists. Quicksilver feels even more superfluous, his role could have been filled by anyone, even an adaptoid robot or something else, and his death comes as a slap in the face for fans (though he could be resurrected over in Agents of SHIELD). Meanwhile the Vision really comes across as the film's breakout star in terms of characters, though I'm at a loss as to how the Mind gem produces laser beams (comic book physics anyone?). Of all the three new characters only he needed to be there, if only to recreate the father/son drama he and Ultron share in the comics. He's also the new addition who comes across as the strongest character, both twins being little more than ciphers.
Overall, a good film, but its flaws, in my opinion, are writ large. I hope that the upcoming Infinity War films will rewrite the studio's playbook and give us something new.